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BLUE-BLOODED VAMP

1

The St. Charles streetcar lumbered its way toward the Garden District like a mourner in a funeral procession. The rocking motion should have soothed me, but I was pretty sure I was beyond ever relaxing again.

Adam sat next me. His warm hand on my leg helped dispel some of the chill. He wore his trademark brown duster and heavy boots. The goatee and muscled frame added to his general air of menace, but the mage’s real danger lay in his ability to wield magical weapons.

In addition to being my partner, he was also my . . . boyfriend? No, too high school. Lover? Ugh. Consort? Meh.

I guess when it came down to it, he was just my mancy, plain and simple. And his presence had become as critical to my equilibrium as gravity or blood. So when he’d insisted on coming with me to Erron Zorn’s house, I hadn’t refused.

However, we’d opted to leave Giguhl behind at Madam Zenobia’s Voodoo Apothecary. Some situations just demanded a distinct lack of Mischief demon. Besides, staying back gave my minion a chance to mend fences with his friend Brooks, a Changeling who had stormed out of New York a few days earlier after a nasty argument with Giguhl about his lifestyle choices.

To say I wasn’t looking forward to our errand was the understatement of the millennium. Not only would I have to recount the shitty news of recent events in New York, but I also knew the favor I’d come to ask of Erron Zorn might get a door slammed in my face.

Adam squeezed my thigh, bringing my thoughts back to the present. “Whatever Erron says, try and keep your cool, okay?”

I nodded but didn’t agree verbally. Even though Adam’s sentiment was reasonable, I’d force Erron to go to Italy with us at gunpoint if I had to. Our mission was too critical to put up with squeamishness or attacks of conscience.

With each block’s progress toward Erron’s Garden District mansion, the more the memories of recent days weighed on my shoulders like a lead yoke. I picked up the moonstone amulet I wore around my neck. It had been given to me by my sister, Maisie, and advertised my position as the High Priestess of the Blood Moon. While the title was mostly symbolic, the amulet reminded me of better days when my twin was still alive. When lots of people were still alive, actually. I squeezed the round stone in my hand and closed my eyes, drawing on its strength.

The streetcar’s wheels hissed against their tracks, signaling a stop. Frowning, I squinted out the windows, trying to see how many more until we reached First. But the trolley hadn’t stopped at an intersection. Instead, it had squealed to a halt in the middle of the grassy median that held the tracks. I looked around to check if any of the other passengers had pulled the emergency stop cord.

The birthmark on my left shoulder suddenly itched and burned, like a warning. That’s when I realized all the other passengers were unnaturally still. Two old ladies near the front leaned toward each other with their mouths open. One had a hand raised in midair to make a point, but it didn’t move.

My gaze swiveled toward Adam. His head was bowed like a man at prayer. His hand was still on my thigh, but he wasn’t moving either.

I shook his shoulder. “Adam?” I whispered.

Nothing.

I waved a hand under his face.

Nothing.

“Shit.” I turned and looked at the other passengers—the middle-aged dude with his much-younger mistress, the gangly teen with headphones glued to his ears, even the streetcar operator—everyone, frozen. A quick glance outside the windows revealed that every car and body on the street had gone still as well. It was as if someone had hit a universal pause button.

So why was I still mobile?

The ominous quiet roared in my ears. My heart beat like a spastic metronome. I rose slowly, looking for any sign of life. Panic rose in my throat like a fist.

Whatever was happening was bad. Really, really bad. I had no idea what was going on, but I knew I needed to get out of the trolley and into the open. If an attack was coming—and I was pretty sure one was—I didn’t want to be trapped in the trolley.

But before I could make good on that plan, the doors opened with an ominous click-clack. A foot clad in a leather sandal appeared on the bottom step, followed by a male hand and the edge of a white sleeve. I reached back for the gun in my waistband. If this bastard thought I was easy prey, he was about to get a nasty surprise.

A mass of gray hair appeared next, on top of a face bearing a thick, white beard. With the help of a long staff, the intruder hefted himself up the rest of the steps. Finally, he turned toward me and smiled.

I frowned back and raised my gun. “Who the fuck are you?”

The old male sighed and waved a careless hand. My gun flew from my grasp and skittered down the aisle to land at his sandaled feet. “Your mundane weapons are useless here, Mixed-blood.” His voice was deep and strong, but also weary like he had little patience for my resistance. “You mortal realm beings are so lazy. Not to mention rude.”

Instead of answering, I gathered my powers up into my solar plexus.

“Ah, ah, ah,” he said. “You could try it but I’m afraid you won’t like the results.” He waved his staff menacingly. “Besides, is that any way to treat someone who’s helped you?”

I crossed my arms, annoyed. “When have you helped me?”

Instead of answering, his face shifted and swirled until it morphed into the muzzle of a black dog. Seeing the familiar canine visage, I relaxed a fraction. “Well, shit, Asclepius, why didn’t you just tell me it was you to begin with?” I waved a hand in a circle to indicate the frozen tableau around us. “And why all the drama? You could have just appeared in my dreams or whatever.”

“Where’s the fun in that? Besides, it’s been too long since I visited the mortal realm.”

“So what do you want?”

“Don’t play coy.” His friendly expression hardened into something more menacing. “You know why I’m here.”

My stomach sank. “You’ve come to collect the favor I owe you.”

“Correction: I’ve come to collect the favors, plural.” He held up two fingers.

Shit, that’s right. I’d made two blood sacrifices to the god of healing in exchange for his help. Once when Rhea and I performed a dream incubation healing rite on my twin, Maisie, to help her regain her gift of prophecy, and the second when I went into the Liminal to save her from Cain.

Or tried to, anyway.

“Is there any way this can wait? I kind of have a lot on my plate right now.”

“No, it cannot wait. Your promise was to do my bidding at a time of my choosing. There are no rain checks.”

“Yeah, but—”

He stabbed the tip of his staff into the floor. “I am well aware of your . . . issues. You’re just going to have to figure out how to make it work. However, I do think you’ll find my errands dovetail nicely with your own mission of vengeance.”

My eyebrows slammed down. “How do you know about that?”

He shrugged. “Being a god has its privileges.” As far as explanations went, it was actually pretty good. After all, deities knew all sorts of things. But hearing that my quest to kill Cain had become supernatural gossip worried me.

“Okay, what are these errands, exactly?”

“Actually it was quite fortuitous that it was you who owes me. Your former profession makes you the perfect tool for my needs.”

In a former life that felt decades ago instead of mere months, I had been an assassin for the leaders of the vampire race. So, it didn’t take a genius to guess he wanted me to kill someone. No sense telling him I was out of the killing business. Especially since we’d both know it was a lie. “Who?”

“A vampire, she goes by the name Nyx. No last name.”

“Never heard of her.”

“I’m not surprised. She was last seen in Italy . . .” He let the word hang there like a juicy pint of blood on the end of a stick. I kept my expression impassive, but he saw right through it. “Which, I understand, is exactly where you’re headed.”

“Why do you want her dead?”

Asclepius pursed his lips and shot me an offended glare. “Normally I would smite you for your impertinence, but since this is our first deal together, I’ll overlook it.” He paused as if collecting his thoughts. “Like you, Nyx made a blood offering in exchange for my aid. But she isn’t as smart as you because she squelched on her promise.”

I had to admire the way he managed to weave a threat into his explanation. “Why can’t you just strike her down with a bolt of lightning or something?”

He tilted his head and shot me a pitying look. “I am a god of healing, Sabina. I cannot directly cause harm or death to anyone.”

I supposed that made some sort of sense, but clearly his moral code didn’t prevent him from extorting others to do his dirty work.

I pursed my lips and thought it over. “What’s the second favor?”

“Nyx’s request was for an item of power. A magical vest that protects the wearer from all weapons— agical and mundane. After you kill her, I want you to bring it to me.”

“Um, not to split hairs or anything, but why would she want a vest to protect her from harm? As a vampire, she’d already be immune to most weapons.”

“She had her reasons.”

“What does she look like?”

“She’s a redhead.”

I rolled my eyes. “You just described one hundred percent of the vampire population.” Because the race is descended from Cain, the biblical dude who was marked by the mortal deity with a shock of red hair, all vampires were gingers, too. “Are we talking deep auburn or strawberry blond?”

Asclepius pursed his lips and did a little wishy- ashy head shake. “In between. More like cherry red.”

I nodded. That meant I would be dealing with a youngish vamp, maybe a century or so old. Good, she would be easier to kill. “Any other distinguishing characteristics?”

“She’s a hottie.”

Again, this described most of the race. Because of their predatory advantages, vampires were usually incredibly attractive, which lowered the inhibitions of their mortal prey.

At my dubious look, Asclepius sighed. “I know what you’re thinking, but this vamp is gorgeous. If I didn’t want her dead, I’d try to fuck her myself.”

I grimaced and decided to change the subject before I lost my patience completely. “Can you at least give me more specifics about where to find her? Italy isn’t exactly small.”

His eyes shifted left. “No.”

“Why not?”

“You dare question a god?” he thundered.

I raised an eyebrow, sensing he was holding out on me.

He resisted my knowing glare for a few moments before he relented. “Fine. A cloaking ward was embedded in the chain mail so that she cannot be found by magical means.”

I laughed before I could help myself. “Wait, so you gave her an item that prevented you from finding her and then got pissed when she didn’t pay up? Way to screw yourself, dude.”

“Enough!” He took a menacing step forward.

I sobered instantly. “I apologize.” Time to get the conversation back to the big picture. “But if the vest protects her from all weapons, how exactly am I supposed to kill her?”

The god shrugged. “Not my concern.”

I bit my tongue to trap the angry curse that begged to be spoken. “How much time do I have to find her?” I said instead.

“Sabina, time is a fluid thing.” He raised his hands dismissively.

I supposed when you’re an ancient god, that might be true, but I lived in the mortal realm, where time was decidedly inflexible. I didn’t want to leave this detail open to interpretation so he could use it against me later.

“I’m gonna need something more specific.”

He sighed. “Fine. I’ll check in on you in a few days. By that time, I expect to hear you’ve put serious effort toward the task.”

In other words, I couldn’t just conveniently forget to track down this Nyx while I focused on my real goals. “Understood. I just ask that you don’t expect immediate success. Finding her alone could take several days.”

“I accept these terms.” He nodded and thunked his staff on the floor three times. I got the impression this was some sort of supernatural handshake. “So it is done. Gods speed, Sabina Kane.”

I expected the god to vanish in an intimidating display of fireworks; instead he simply opened the doors and exited like any mundane passenger. Only after he reached the sidewalk did he wave his staff and disappear. The instant he did, the world exploded into a kaleidoscope of movement, color, and sound. The trolley jerked into motion with a screech. The sudden movement knocked Adam forward off the bench, where he landed at my feet. He looked up at me with a sober expression.

“What the hell just happened?”

I sighed and held out a hand to help him up. “I’ll tell you in a sec. I need to get something first.”

While the mancy dusted himself off, I wound my way through the disoriented passengers to retrieve my gun from the floor. The old biddies nearby gasped when they saw the weapon. Luckily, the trolley was already slowing again as it approached the stop at First. I tucked the gun into my waistband and pushed Adam toward the door.

“Red?” he said, shooting me a tense glance over his shoulder.

I leaned in so no one else could hear. “Asclepius just threw a colossal wrench in our plans.”

The doors finally opened. Adam hopped into the street, turned to help me down, and without missing a beat said, “Of course he did.”

***

We headed up First into the heart of the Garden District. Rain dropped like tears from the drooping boughs of the stately oaks. Golden lights winked at us from a few windows set high in the mansion walls, but the late hour meant we had the night mostly to ourselves.

As we walked, I filled the mancy in on the god’s request. When I finished, he was surprisingly calm. “We’ll be in Italy anyway, so I don’t see that it will distract too much from our original mission,” he said in a reasonable tone. “Besides, assuming we even find this Nyx, it wouldn’t hurt to have a healing god on our side when shit goes down with Cain.”

“You’re probably right, but it’s a complication we don’t need.”

Adam put his arm around my shoulder and leaned into me. “Oh, what’s one more?” His tone was dry, teasing. I shot him a glare. “Listen, he said he just expects you to make an effort, right?”

I nodded.

“So we make a couple of inquiries when we get to Rome. As long as you show a good- aith effort, he can’t be pissed.”

Erron’s home was on the corner of Prytania and First. We’d visited the house a couple of times during our last trip to New Orleans, and it hadn’t changed much. Same Greek Revival architecture. Same stately columns and deep porch. Same wrought-iron fence standing guard at the sidewalk.

I paused at the gate, my sweaty palm slicking against the cold metal. My promise to find this Nyx chick would be worth nothing if I couldn’t convince Erron to help us in Rome. If he refused, we’d have no hope of tracking down the mysterious mage who went by the name “Abel” and knew more about Cain than any living being on the planet.

“Here we go,” I said. “Remind me again not to use force.”

Adam smiled. “You’ll do fine. Erron’s a reasonable guy.”

I shot Adam an ironic look. Reasonablewasn’t the first word that came to mind when I thought of Erron Zorn. The first time we’d met the lead singer of Necrospank 5000, he was hosting a midget orgy in his living room. “Reasonable,” I said. “Sure.”

Adam nudged me. “Just get it over with. Like pulling off a bandage.”

Taking a deep breath, I pushed open the gate. It creaked in protest, as if warning me to turn back. If I’d had the choice, I’d have done just that. But I didn’t have that luxury.

The minute Cain killed my sister, he’d cemented both our fates. I just hoped that this time, fate would be in my corner. But if it wasn’t, I prayed that I at least would be able to kill the bastard before I joined my sister in Irkalla.

As we got closer to the house, the muted strains of piano music reached my ears. At first I couldn’t place the melody. Not until I climbed the front steps and stood directly outside the front door.

Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” curled under the threshold and grabbed me by the throat. As beautiful as the song was, each mournful note felt like a punch in the gut. I glanced at Adam, whose face was cast in the porch’s shadows.

“Well,” he said, “at least his taste in music has improved.”

I tried to smile, but my mouth tightened into a grimace instead. “I was hoping to find him in a good mood, but now I’m not so sure.”

The last time I’d spoken to Erron, he’d been lecturing me about optimism. Telling me that Cain was a nonissue and I could relax my guard. As far as famous parting words went, those ranked right up there with “Hey, y’all, watch this.”

I paused, wondering if I should wait. Go sit on his front steps until the song was over, or better yet come back the next night. But part of me knew I was looking for an excuse to escape the music. The melodic reminder of the things I wanted to forget.

Adam nudged me with his elbow. “Clock’s ticking, Red.”

My hand pounded on the door before I was aware of instructing it to do so. In the house, a discordant note signaled the end of the song. I stood waiting, my heart thudding in my chest. Would he answer? Or was he praying the intruder at his door would just go away?

I pounded again, calling out, “Erron! It’s Sabina and Adam.”

The door flew open. No one stood on the other side, which meant Erron had used magic to open it. Figuring this was as close to a “come in” as we’d get, I stepped into the foyer. The entire house was dark, but I could feel the beating of another heart somewhere inside. Erron’s heart. The slow, methodical beat should have reassured me, but I was too on edge to relax.

“Erron?” I whispered. The dark made calling out seem sacrilegious.

“Here.” The voice had come from the living area, where I remembered seeing a piano on my last visit. The darkness wasn’t a challenge for my vampiric sight, but something about the whole scene had my instincts on red alert.

I exchanged a wary look with Adam and withdrew the gun from my waistband. My palms were clammy and my pulse thumped in my ears. Taking careful steps, I proceeded to the archway between us and the living room. I plastered my back to the wall, and Adam took a similar posture across the way. We went still, waiting, listening.

Nothing.

“Are you alone?” I finally said in a low tone.

A light flared to life in the other room. A cynical laugh reached me. “Always.”

I frowned and chanced a peek around the corner. Sure enough, Erron slumped on the bench in front of his Steinway. His back was to us, but the bend of his shoulders and the half-empty bottle of amber liquor told me he wasn’t in trouble or afraid. Erron Zorn, famous musician and Recreant mage, was dead drunk.

We entered the room slowly, scanning the periphery for signs of another occupant, just in case. But sure enough, Erron was alone. I relaxed my shoulders and lowered the gun. I didn’t holster it, though, didn’t trust the silence or the mood enough to relax completely.

Adam cleared his throat. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you it’s not healthy to drink alone?”

As an Adherent mage, Adam had always been a little tense around Erron. The rocker’s refusal to follow the Hekate Council’s laws made him a bit of a loose cannon in Adam’s eyes. Still, the two men also had a sort of fragile mutual respect thing going—the type that naturally builds when you’ve fought side by side.

Erron turned slowly on the bench to look at us. The last time I’d seen him, he’d been sweaty and exhausted after a show at the Jupiter Ballroom in Manhattan. But that didn’t compare to the haggard specter sitting in front of me.

His black hair was longer than when I’d last seen him, and the way it drooped limply around his face indicated he had shunned his normal regimen of styling products. Dark circles shadowed the skin under his gray eyes. Instead of the Johnny Cash wardrobe he usually favored, he wore a ratty T-shirt advertising a tour he’d done in Asia five years earlier and a pair of frayed jeans.

“Where’s Ziggy?” I asked, referring to the mage’s best friend and drummer.

Erron shrugged and played three discordant notes on the keyboard. “He quit the band. He and my stylist ran off to a private beach in the Caribbean.”

I frowned at him. “Wait, Ziggy ran off with Goldie?” Goldie Schwartz, in addition to being Erron’s stylist, was also a sassy midget with a predilection for kinky sex.

His nod was morose. “I guess they fell in love on tour. Zig said they’re talking about a Vegas wedding.”

“But why did he quit the band?” Adam asked.

“He said I’d lost my edge.” Erron laughed bitterly. “That having mortals in the band was ruining our original vision. I told him things were safer with the mortals, but he wouldn’t listen.”

Adam and I exchanged a look. Years earlier, Cain had decided to try and recruit Erron into his secret cabal of dark races troublemakers. When the Recreant refused, Cain had punished him by hurting his mage bandmates.

While it was tempting to talk to Erron about his drama, we had more pressing matters to discuss. Ones that tied in with his reasons for insisting on a mostly human band now.

He lifted the liquor bottle and toasted us. “Anyway, I’m not drinking alone anymore, thanks to you two.” He frowned like his brain was having trouble processing information. “Wait. Why are you here? I thought you were still in New York.”

I went still. “Zen didn’t call you?”

“No, why?” Erron looked me in the eye, his expression suddenly much more sober. “What happened?”

I motioned him to pass me the bottle. He handed it over with great reluctance, like I was stealing his security blanket. I took a long pull and savored the fire spreading down my throat and into my stomach. Adam shot me a look, but I ignored it. “You know the murders we discussed when you were in New York?” I didn’t wait for him to answer. I needed to get this out as quickly as possible. “After you left, there were two more: Tanith and Orpheus were poisoned at the peace treaty signing. One second they were toasting to peace and the next”—I snapped—”toast.”

“Particularly in Tanith’s case,” Adam added, referring to the way the vampire had exploded all over the unsigned treaty.

Erron grabbed the bottle back and took a bracing swig. “Who killed them?”

I hesitated. Putting the truth into words was harder than I expected. Luckily, Adam came to my rescue.

“Maisie.”

Erron dropped the bottle like it burned him. Glass shattered and alcohol pooled on the wooden floor. “What?”

“Turns out when your friend Abel imprisoned Cain physically, it didn’t occur to him that the bastard would be able to wreak havoc through his subconscious,” Adam continued. “He was controlling Maisie through the Liminal.”

Erron scrubbed his hand over his face like he was having trouble following. “What’s the Liminal?”

This was my area of expertise and was far less painful to explain. “It’s the plane between our existence and Irkalla. It’s also where our subconscious goes when we sleep. By the time we figured out Cain was manipulating Maisie through her dreams, it was too late. His hold on her was too strong. He made her perform the ritual to free him.” I swallowed the guilt lodged in my throat. “Then he . . . killed her.”

Erron blanched. “Maisie’s dead?”

I nodded because I couldn’t speak. Adam’s hand came up to rest on my back. Part of me wanted to resist the comfort because I worried it might make the dam burst open. But the other part of me was thankful I hadn’t come alone to talk to the Recreant. Hell, I was relieved Adam was around, period—after all, Maisie had tried to kill him, too.

Erron ran a hand through his hair and went to retrieve more liquor. As he uncapped the bottle, his hand shook. “So Cain’s free and you came here hoping I’d help you find him?”

“Yes,” Adam said. “We figure Abel is the best place to start. And since you’re the only one we know who’s actually talked to the guy . . .” Adam trailed off with a shrug.

“If Cain’s free from Abel’s spell, it’ll be a miracle if he’s still alive.”

I raised my chin with a bravado I barely felt. “Just so happens we’re in the market for one of those right now.” I refused to believe Abel was dead. It simply was not an option.

“That’s good because you’re going to need seven kinds of miracles to defeat Cain and survive. He can’t be killed, remember?”

After he had marked Cain with red hair for the sin of killing his brother—the original Abel—the mortal god, Elohim, declared that anyone who killed Cain would reap the punishment sevenfold. Therefore, killing Cain was a death sentence for you and all your loved ones.

When Adam and I didn’t respond, Erron started pacing and continued. “I know you’re hurting right now. And I know you think revenge is the only thing that will stop the pain. But as your friend, I’m asking you not to pursue this.”

I jerked as if he’d struck me. “How can you say that? You know I can’t just walk away.”

“Sabina”—he jabbed a finger toward me—”if you go to Italy, you will lose and Cain will win. Period.” He crossed his arms. “You want my advice? Run and keep running until you find a remote cave far from civilization. Take the Adherent and your demon with you, too, because he’ll go after them next. It’s the only way you’ll all survive.”

“I’d rather die than run.”

“Brave words are easy when you’re safe. Have you considered that Cain’s luring you into a trap?”

“I know he is. Just before he killed Maisie, he told me he wants me to use my Chthonic magic to help him access Irkalla. I think he’s planning on kidnapping Lilith.”

In addition to being the man who invented murder, Cain was also the psycho ex-boyfriend of the Great Mother. They’d created the vampire race together before Lilith kicked him to the curb to marry to the demon Asmodeus and become Queen of Irkalla. Cain was convinced he and Lilith belonged together, and most of his plots revolved around getting her back. But according to the prophecies of the Praescarium Lilitu, if any of the dark races gained power over the other races, Lilith would return to the mortal realm and kill us all. Every werewolf, faery, vampire, and mage would die. Cain’s obsession would have been sad and desperate if succeeding didn’t mean the destruction of all the dark races.

“Can you do that?” Erron asked. “Access Irkalla?”

I shrugged. “Rhea seems to think it’s possible.” Rhea was Adam’s aunt and the interim leader of the mage race. She’d also been my magical mentor.

“And you’re still planning on going after him? That’s just what he wants!”

“Which is why we need to find Abel,” Adam pointed out. “You said yourself he knows Cain better than anyone. He figured out how to trap the bastard once. Maybe he can help us find a new way to stop Cain before he destroys us all.”

“What if Abel is dead? What then?”

I shrugged. “Then I’ll try something else. But I’m going to Italy with or without your help. I just thought you . . .” I trailed off, letting the words float there like chum in water.

As expected, Erron attacked the bait like a hungry shark. “You just thought I’d what?”

“I just thought you of all beings would want to help stop Cain once and for all. This is your chance to make him pay for what he did to Ziggy and your old band.”

Ziggy had been deafened after a vicious attack by Cain several years earlier. But the drummer had gotten off easy. He’d lost only his hearing; the rest of Erron’s bandmates lost their lives.

Air escaped the Recreant’s lungs in a rush. “You’re playing dirty.”

“I don’t have the luxury of playing this clean, Erron. Now, are you going to help us find Abel or are you going to bury your face in a bottle of whisky until it’s time to kiss your ass good-bye?”

Erron took a deep breath, as if bracing himself for the inevitable. “All right. I’ll help you find Abel. That’s all I’m willing to promise right now.”

I nodded. “Fair enough.”

He stood slowly, like an old man instead of a powerful magical being. “You want to head out tonight, I assume?”

“I have some business to take care of first. We’ll leave tomorrow. What’s the time difference between New Orleans and Italy?”

He pursed his lips. “Seven hours?”

Adam nodded. “We’ll want to get there as close to dusk as possible so we can hit the ground running. Meet us at Zen’s by ten and we’ll head out.”

Erron looked me in the eye. “Are you ready for this?” By that, he didn’t mean the interspatial travel to Rome. He meant facing the tough choices I’d need to make to kill an unkillable foe. He meant, was I ready to sell my soul to get revenge?

My jaw clenched. “No, but I’m doing it anyway.”

That seemed to satisfy him. He raised the new bottle. “To justice, then.”

I grabbed the liquor and took a long, searing swallow. As heat spread down to my stomach, fortifying my resolve, I toasted him. “No, Erron, to revenge.”